Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On Neighborhood Gardens and Farmers Markets

A formerly vacant property is given new life as a functioning source of food, nourishing residents nutritionally and socially.

Talk is bubbling up around Dallas City Hall arising from neighborhood meetings in parts of the City expressing interest in creating neighborhood-based community gardens, as nationally we are seeing them sprout from Brooklyn to Oakland. The past five days have seen articles from both the DMN, as well as the Observer, a blog entry by BFOC, and the local twittersphere has been buzzing.

To start from the broadest perspective, the average American meal travels over 1500 miles to get to the plate. Food security in the age of peak oil will be of vital interest to address before it becomes a reality. The next time oil spikes will dallas families be able to afford a 3000 mile caesar salad? Will we be able to afford to continue to subsidize agricultural commodities if all we get in return on that investment is poison in the form of various corn syrups and starches?


Allowing for edible gardens is fundamentally important, to which it appears that everybody is on board, but there is some worry about defending the current downtown farmers market. I find the key distinction is one of definition. What is a Farmers Market? What is a Community Garden? I'll explain how they might be different birds of a feather, but will explain why the goose AND the gander are important moving forward.

The concern regarding the existing farmers' market isn't illegitimate. On one side, the existing market provides a central location for farmers from well outside the city to wholesale their produce falling under the same idea as providing predictability/access/centrality/synergy for retail, as the City has spent $ in support of the existing market. However, this location isn't the most convenient for many neighborhoods if they have to get in the car every time to visit. Furthermore, it's current format is adapted to a bombed out downtown. Eventually there might be a higher and better use for this land than a sprawling, low density farmers market and it adapts into a smaller, more compact market or linear market on a street as we'll see below or as a central square embedded within new development.

This is not an either or proposition, which Americans are either exquisitely skilled at turning every issue into, or the press is too lazy to find nuance within the mysterious gray abyss. What I don't seem to see is any understanding of the range of scales that local farming and neighborhood gardening can be realized. Providing for a flexible range must be permitted and able to thrive as neighborhood demand drives it.

Scale. There are a wide variety of scales of community gardens and in order to find common ground, a key distinction must be made with the downtown farmers market.


I often write about cities needing to identify and respond to demand drivers. This is one case where planners are important for reasons that I summarized above and stated in the recently published Smart Growth Manual (recommendation: this book provides a good overview for policy makers or concerned citizens, but lacks the depth for professional designers or planners):
...open space should be set aside for growing food, whether or not there is present demand for it.
Why? Jumping back a few sections in the same book [and reordering and in some case rewording, for clarification purposes]:
Cities that hope to thrive in the long run must secure and enlarge their [capacity for local and regional agricultural production...Otherwise, long-distance food sourcing will become increasingly untenable and metropolitan areas will have difficulty feeding themselves within their means.]
Fortunately, we are already seeing the initial stages of cresting white-capped waves of pent up demand bubbling up from the horizon, as if an unseen tectonic shift had occurred deep beneath the seas of present consciousness. To continue the metaphor, the majority of this demand, like the volume of a wave at its formational stages remains unseen. I predict it will be great enough to support edible gardening at all scales and in all sectors. This should be accommodated if and when the demand does arrive, even at the sake of any protectionist measures where the Farmers Market might object to local competition.

At the largest scale (of locally produced agriculture) are what we know as Farmers Markets, which typically consist of small, but professional farming families migrating daily or weekly into the City from across the State. These often have the widest market share, drawing specialty consumers from across the metropolitan area. An example of mid-scale local ag is the community garden that is tended by neighborhood residents and feeds mostly only nearby neighborhood residents. Smaller even are the yard gardens or raised beds of single family residents, who typically grow food to supplement or replace some of their grocery purchases. The smallest are the window boxes for residents of more dense residential buildings can grow small amounts of herbs and vegetables.

Another issue is that of local or neighborhood determinism. Bottom-up solutions are generally always effective once they reach a critical mass, because they are demand driven by local knowledge of the issues and needs, meaning any policy measures should allow for easy implementation and great flexibility. Furthermore, this is an issue where the choice of one neighborhood has little effect on another. Flexibility for local decision-making should be built into whatever happens at the City level.

Two areas that are getting the most attention - due to neighborhood demand and a well-educated, motivated, and younger bohemian class interested in getting their hands a little dirty - are in Deep Ellum and Oak Cliff - particular the Bishop Arts area.

Community gardens can work at any density.

Thus far, nearly all efforts to stimulate community development have come from top down agendas, which are fundamentally supply-side in their logic ("if we only get this there, if we only get that there, all will be well!"). These have been little more than attempts to remake South Dallas in the likeness of North Dallas. They have been unsuccessful as quite literally, much of South Dallas exists as a "food desert" - as groceries, especially (unfortunately) those with healthier options follow the rooftops, with a particular fetish for the oversized and grandiose stylings of kitchy North Dallas Palaces, with forward facing garages and the Range Rovers parked within them.

Editorial coming: If only the wealthy can be healthy, this is a fundamental indicator in a system failing its citizenry. When transpo/shipping costs rise, these disparities will only be exaggerated.

The last thing areas towards the poorer end of the spectrum need are the out-of-town chain retailers so commonly found mining for gold in the Northern sector. Particularly in this time of unprecedented cultural and economic tidal shift, it is time to allow them to find their own character niche, defined in their own image, by their own needs as neighborhood communities. Trying to entice/beg/subsidize retail into these areas has been and will remain to be failed policy (even more so now that most chain retailers are contracting rather than expanding to new locations), so allow for some ground-up community-based retail in the form of local agricultural production.

Future of groceries. One thing I feel like I always run into, and that is a sort of learned helplessness that the status quo will always remain. This only exists because we live on a day-to-day basis, but cities live year-to-year and decade-to-decade and century-to-century. Cities are forever changing, molting, adapting, and evolving beyond typical human comprehension. Similarly, so do the way businesses operate, and in this case, the logistics, delivery and supply of food.

Allowing the rise in local food production will certainly incite the eventual, desperate howls from the grocery chains. We can't fear change, especially not in the current turbulence, if it provides for something that the business sector refuses or is unable to provide: healthy, affordable food, as well as opportunities for personal learning and self-improvement, that are organically developed and become woven into the fabric of community.

The future of groceries in my opinion, within twenty years or so, will be primarily for packaged, processed, and pre-made "finished" foods, those with added value, as many or all regional/seasonal fruits and vegetables are produced and sold locally, at these various scales of farmers markets. Once again, increasing transportation/shipping costs (not to mention potential desertification of overworked agri-business soil) will make the mass production of what I'll call mid-level food groups (fruits, veggies, and some dairy/livestock which I'll mention shortly - as opposed to low-level like grains) untenable at the national and international scale. Commodities that travel a long way will once again return to their status as imported specialty or luxury items. THAT is an inconvenient truth.

There is nothing radical about this. The past visits the future when cheap oil no longer allows the illogical. I've discussed nearby agriculture in the Valencia case study and saw it first hand having lived in and studied Rome, perhaps the most time-adapted and molted city on the planet, where locally produced foods were sold at farmers markets like fruits, vegetables, fish, and free range livestock. Local bakers come to get selected grains, butchers can pick out the best piggies and moo cows, and restaurants can find the best fish (which is why good chefs always shop first thing in the morning).

As long as multi-modal transportation supports it (and I'm talking in several years or decades from now), each neighborhood based market can adopt its own character as they agglomerate naturally to support both business and community, but they need the chance to succeed and the time to adapt and grow roots. Eventually, these can even cater to broader market segments and take on the form of flea markets selling next level products and finished or even refurbished goods, such as woodworkings from lumber or working toasters or tv's from broken ones picked up out of the junk pile.

I know altruism isn't a good motivator for mass movements, but do we really want to keep throwing away stuff until we're all absorbed by the North Pacific Gyre?

Other local markets where goods find second homes, Porta Portese Flea Market in Rome:
File:Rome porta portese july 2006.jpg

The key to success and stability is clustering and relocalization of these various niche markets and services, embedding them as central features within walkable neighborhoods interconnected to the regional multi-modal transportation system for access from a larger base. This creates for predictable and known "macro-destinations" rather than a million different individual "micro-destinations" scattered across DFW in drivable-only locations. From an economic standpoint this allows for improved competition by proximity: a consumer can go to one place and compare similar goods/services/prices in one spot.

This is how you restore a healthy, sustainable, locally-based and supported economy that can withstand. Economic development isn't always about smokestack or conventioneer chasing as the conventional wisdom still rotting from the 80's. I've checked the fridge and yep, that is where the smell is coming from and I've hence thrown it out. Sometimes it is simply about providing opportunity, for the local citizenry to flex its entreprenurial and communitarian muscles, producing necessary goods and services in an attainable and accessibly participatory local economy.

In sum - and back on to the topic of food - cuz its lunch and I'm getting hongry (sic) - what community gardens do is provide cheap healthy food for residents, provide a source of income for unemployed and underemployed individuals, can be a source of community pride and togetherness. And in many ways, it becomes a form of crowd-sourcing, where different individuals bring various personal or newly learned skills to one task to improve the final product. For children, there is an opportunity to learn where food comes from, how to steward the land themselves, be productive and learn responsibility, as well as get nutrition cheaply rather than just cheap corn syrup byproducts.

Embrace this opportunity. It will be good to return some sanity and rationality to economics, and my guess is our economy and our citizens will all be healthier for it.


Other Recommended Reading:

P-Patch community gardens in Seattle w/ Links to Portland's Digable City

Case Studies of Community Gardens and Farmers Markets from the Sustainable Food Center.

Local Harvest.org

In Defense of Food (book)

Fast Food Nation (book)